So I have a theory that everyone in Splatoon is secretly a cannibal.
Okay, maybe not everyone -- because I have my doubts that shopkeepers like Sheldon and Crusty Sean could even take a good bite out of someone. But you’ve seen the Inklings by now, right? Every time they open their mouths, they show off some seriously sharp chompers. TV personalities Callie and Marie casually talk about eating seafood, and both of them wear sushi-style hats. Chalk this up to headcanon, but are we 100% sure that Inklings that lose an Ink Battle aren’t eaten alive as punishment?
Maybe death just has no meaning for these undersea people (who live on the surface for some reason). They reincarnate endlessly during an Ink Battle, after all. But it may go further than that; lose a battle and go back to the lobby, and you’re a different color than when you started -- so maybe the losing Inkling got devoured, and you start playing as a substitute. Or if you win and go back to the lobby, you play as an Inkling who dug your original Inkling’s fresh styles, and adopted his/her outfit to pay tribute (and try to look cool). That’s probably not the case, but hey. It gets the gears going.
In some ways, that might be what makes Splatoon secretly great -- because even in the absence of an hours-long narrative, I can’t help but feel excited by the game’s world. Learning more about it? That’d be preeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetty coooooooooooooooooool.
The story of Splatoon is about as straightforward as you’d expect. Like I said last time, the land-faring sea creatures of the game’s world only care about Ink Battles and looking cool. The tradeoff? That means they’re taking a pretty laissez-faire approach to having their key source of power, the Great Zapfish, stolen from under their squid-noses. But if you take your Inkling over to a corner of the map, you’ll be able to dive into a sewer grate and pop up in a new area -- and more importantly, receive your mission.
Right off the bat, you meet the seasoned veteran/bulgy-eyed coot Cap’n Cuttlefish, who explains the problem: the Great Zapfish (along with dozens of other Zapfish) has been taken prisoner by the Octolings. If you want to stop their shenanigans, you’ll have to don special armor and become Agent 3…as an impromptu stand-in for Agents 1 and 2. And so begins your campaign, as the sole member of a squid platoon. A “puid”, if you will.
I feel like there’s a better title in there somewhere, but I can’t come up with anything, so let’s move on.
The single-player mode is a very different beast from the multiplayer. The latter is hurried and chaotic, while the former is by design much more leisurely. Barring the occasional mad rush, you’ll probably end up taking your time -- mostly because it’s a fusion of a platformer and a shooter, which means that one wrong move will send you falling to your death. I’ll say upfront that those looking for an adrenaline rush should probably avoid the single-player altogether; it’s not bad by any means, but it’s a leisurely stroll from one challenge to the next. It’s not exactly stressful, which is obvious since there’s nothing even resembling a timer. You’ve typically got all the time you need to make your move.
I’d say that one of the mode’s greatest strengths is that it manages to keep throwing new stuff at you -- or if not new stuff, then new ways to traverse levels and shoot your ways to the Zapfish. There are ziplines you can ride, sponges you can engorge, balloons you can pop, invisible paths you can reveal, and more. It’s true that in the final levels you’ll see remixes of those props instead of that new stuff, but the fact that the game tasks you with learning how to use so many spiffy toys in the first place is pretty admirable. It makes me wonder, though: why wasn’t some of that stuff in multiplayer? I could see some tactical use for them -- although if I had to guess, I’d bet the devs found some broken or annoying strategy and figured that players would use them to no end. Disaster averted, maybe?
As you can guess (if you don’t already know), the actual narrative of the game is pretty bare-bones. The Great Zapfish is missing, so you have to go out and find it. The Octarians are causing trouble, so you have to sort it out. Both are more or less done by campaign’s end. The biggest wrinkle is that Cuttlefish -- who acts as mission control/a source of hints/your Metal Gear character of choice -- gets kidnapped about halfway through, which leaves a lot of dead air in the moments that follow. That’s especially the case, since he goes from a handholding parent to an old guardsman who gives the new generation the respect it deserves…and then gets nabbed.
The radio silence doesn’t last for too long, though. Agents 1 and 2 (who try their hardest to suggest they’re not Callie and Marie) step in to supply the chatter in turn, just in case the player needs a confidence boost. To be fair, they actually do get in a good moment at the end when they hijack the broadcast, break out a special song, and push Agent 3 to make a final charge against the last boss. Speaking of, the last boss (like the other bosses before him) is actually pretty cool; it’s one thing to fight with a giant mech, but another thing entirely to do so while posing as a DJ and firing giant missiles wearing shutter shades.
There’s always going to be a part of me that wishes that Splatoon’s campaign was more substantial. Okay, sure, Nintendo’s not exactly the company you should turn to for overt stories (if they have stories at all), but if ever there was a time for a departure, this was it. I want to see more of this world, not just because it’s different, but because it’s new. I want to learn more, and know more. If they make a sequel -- and considering its success so far, it probably will get one at some point -- then I hope they expand upon what’s already here. At the very least, offer up more than just a great big plaza disguised as a main menu.
Still, it’s not as if there was zero effort put in to flesh out the Splatoon world. Notably, there are the Sunken Scrolls -- files you can find scattered throughout the levels that, piece by piece, reveal some of the lore that gives the game its foundation. The unfortunate side effect of that is that it’s very easy to miss the scrolls, so in a lot of ways the game denies the story to all but the greatest treasure hunters (which I am certainly not). It’s a shame that some people will miss out on what’s being offered -- because even if the scrolls are a reward for a job well done, they didn’t have to be.
So no, I didn’t find all of the scrolls -- but I found some, at least. I found enough to not only get a basic understanding of the world, also pique my interest. I’ve actually thought about going back through the levels to find the other scrolls; then I remembered that wikis and the internet exist, so I could get what I want without that trifling thing called effort. The gist of Splatoon’s world is that no matter how it looks now, it’s really (at least) ten thousand years in the future -- and more importantly, it’s built on the remains of an apocalypse. Rising tides led to humanity’s extinction, while the creatures of the sea evolved and took their place, though the tradeoff is that these sea-people have zero tolerance for the waters that once birthed them. Brutal.
Essentially, there’s nothing left of the old world -- our world -- except for Judd, the cat that calls the winner of each Ink Battle. He was actually frozen and preserved in the off-chance that he could somehow survive the disaster. Now he spends his days lazing around and playing tiebreaker to species that care more about mutant paintball than the potential end to their entire civilization. Reality is a harsh mistress, indeed.
So here’s the thing about Splatoon: remember in the last post, I went on a super-long rant about how most online shooters end up hurting their cause thanks to contextualizing themselves as po-faced yet poorly-realized facsimiles of real conflicts? This is hard to believe, but that’s actually a big part of the game. It’s a shooter that exposes the hypocrisy of shooters -- but remarkably, avoids being hypocritical itself. And the saving race is the game’s greatest strength, even in the absence of a gripping, far-reaching story: CONTEXT.
The Ink Battles that everyone’s crazy about are apparently holdovers from the Turf Wars from the days of old (to the point where that’s the name of the default battle type). The Inklings and Octarians fought for limited resources and territory in a battle with no clear good guy or bad guy, and the Octarians got the short end of the stick. So while the Inklings’ Inkopolis stretches from horizon to horizon on the surface, the Octarians got forced underground -- into industrial, rickety domes. You can actually see that in the single-player levels; setting aside the janky environments and equipment, the skyboxes are quite literally that: bunches of panels arranged together to create pseudo-skies.
The reason for that -- for the entire plot, arguably -- is simple. The Octarians aren’t just stealing Zapfish to be assholes. They’re doing it to save their homes.
It’s not as if they’re without fault, though. The Octarians may be in dire straits, but the ends don’t justify the means; if anything, their actions only help to ensure that there’ll be more conflict and more chaos between the two races. You don’t just steal a massive power source -- a living monument fixated almost dead-center in the city -- without drawing a little negative attention. And even if the Inklings take it in stride at first, who’s to say how many problems that could cause down the line? Who’s to say that the Inklings won’t be drafted to fight in a war, or a deadly operation?
Who’s to say they wouldn’t actively jump at the chance? What if, in their eyes, the Ink Battles they love so much were secret indoctrinations -- a way to convince the kiddies that being a soldier is awesome? Given that Callie and Marie are in the military’s pocket, what if they’re the masterminds behind a cultural zeitgeist that can flip children into commandoes at a moment’s notice? What if that was a necessary evil precisely because there could be a war between the Inklings and Octarians at any time -- or more appropriately, a time that’s rapidly approaching because an entire civilization’s quality of life is at stake?
The implications of Splatoon’s world are astounding. But let me make something clear: this isn’t the same situation as a game like Final Fantasy Type-0. That game didn’t feel like explaining anything, even though every facet of its story -- and it DID have a dedicated, point-by-point story -- needed at least a little explanation. Meanwhile, Splatoon by design didn’t need to have anything. It could have gotten away with being nothing but a shooter; it would’ve been poorer for it, but what’s here only enhances one’s understanding and intrigue of its universe. That’s true even if there’s just a glimpse of the depth.
But the most important thing that it does -- the very best thing it does -- is reframe the entire metacontext of shooters. And it does that by making the inherent disconnection and apathy the player feels toward shooters into the inherent disconnection and apathy the better part of a species feels towards shooters -- if not life in general.
Nobody gives a shit about the missing Great Zapfish, which would be the equivalent of people shrugging off a stolen Hoover Dam. The squid-kids only care about looking cool and having fun, and they do that by taking serious conflicts and turning them into a simplified, weight-free farce. It’s not about thought, or deliberation, or any understanding of context; it’s about goofing off with games and forgetting -- if not ignoring -- the problems that are more real to them than any Jimmy Xbox playing a round of CoD with his pals. In essence, Splatoon is a satire of a huge subsection of the gaming culture.
And that’s awesome.
It’s easy for me to read deeply into Splatoon and find a satire of gamers. But even if that’s my interpretation of it, that’s not the only interpretation. I’d say there are plenty of ways to find dark and negative implications in what looks like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon; despite that, there are positive things to be found and appreciated. Yeah, I think Splatoon is making fun of gamers (and the shooter genre even more so, arguably), but it’s worth remembering what the Inklings are so crazy about: their culture. Their whole world revolves around defanged warfare, which may very well be a coping mechanism. If and when there’s a major conflict, they might stand a chance of facing it without a total breakdown of peace, order, or mere piece of mind.
But that’s not all there is to their world. They’re people who care about things -- superficial things on the surface, but those are still things that matter to them. They’re a reflection of their society, after all; clothes and shoes and hats might be material goods, but they can just as easily symbolize something of importance to a huge swath of people, as they do in real life. They have music to listen to and blast through the streets. They have public figures to idolize. Their architecture may be similar to ours, but they’re still an example of the tastes and evolution of a populace that merely happens to have an alternate squid form.
So yes, Splatoon’s single-player is a little light. There’s a lot that hasn’t been fleshed out. But as it so happens -- in one of the biggest paradoxes we gamers have seen yet -- the world of Splatoon might be one of the most fully-realized we’ve seen in years.
Let’s be real here. I’m not so star-struck that I’ll say Splatoon is now my favorite game ever, or even in my top ten. But for what it’s worth? With the industry in the state it is, it’s a miracle that we could ever get something like this. What we have here is the foundation for something truly spectacular, and something that continues to evolve until it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Nintendo’s biggest names. That’s a ways away, I know; honestly, it might be impossible until the Inklings hit their thirtieth birthday.
But look at what we have now. It’s more than just something colorful, and even more than just a new IP. For all its goofiness and absurdity, Splatoon is a game that makes a statement in a couple of strokes. With so few words spared, it can say so much -- and as a result, have an impact that’s as true as even the lengthiest treatise. If that’s not worth celebrating, then I don’t know what is.
Oh, wait. Yes I do. The game’s also pretty freakin’ fun. Can’t forget that.